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Could running be a factor in developing diseases such as Alzheimer's?

Researchers compare MRIs of runners, non-runners

HOUSTON – It’s good for your heart and good for your muscles. But is running good for your brain?

A pair of researchers at the University of Arizona discovered running improves the connectivity of parts of the brain that lose traction as we get older. 

Gabe Mogollon is a state champion middle school runner.

“Each day I just kind of have like, a mini-goal to do whatever during my run, so when I’m done, I feel like I’ve done something for the day,” Mogollon said.

Gene Alexander and David Raichlen compared MRIs of 11 collegiate runners and 11 non-runners.

“From looking at these scans, we were able to tell that the endurance athletes who engaged in a lot of physical activity had areas of the brain that were more active and more connected than the non-athletes,” said Alexander, a Ph.D. and professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Arizona.
  
The red shows more connection between parts of the brain responsible for memory, decision-making and multitasking. The yellow shows the same thing. This could be from increased blood flow or production of factors that help neurons work better and grow.

“What we know right now is that something is better than nothing, and it’s more than likely you’re going to get big bang for your buck if you go from very little activity to some activity,” said Raichlen, a Ph.D. and associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona.
 
Brain connectivity diminishes as we age and is a factor in diseases such as Alzheimer’s. What the researchers learn from young runners now could help aging adults later.

“We’re hoping to find ways in which we can use exercise to improve the brain function structure as we age and provide recommendations and prescriptions for better aging,” Alexander said.

So even in his teens, Gabe is on the right track.

Increased brain connectivity has also been found in people who do activities using fine motor skills such as playing musical instruments. The researchers said running also takes complex thinking, as athletes navigate or plan where to run or how to keep their balance.